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A CSX train carrying crude oil derailed in April in Lynchburg, Virginia, causing a fire and fouling the James River. (Photo: Associated Press by the City of Lynchburg/LuAnn Hunt)

Passing through Perryville: Two crude-oil trains a day

A Baltimore judge ultimately will decide whether two national railroad companies can prevent a state agency from releasing information about their shipments of crude oil through Maryland.

A few residents of Perryville, however, already have all of the information they need. They have “expressed concerns” in the last six months about the Norfolk Southern Corp. trains carrying crude oil through town every day, according Denise Breder, Perryville’s administrator.

In response, the town has done emergency response training to the “best of our ability,” Breder said.

“The only thing we can do is learn as much as we can learn and be prepared as best we can,” she said.

The extent of Norfolk Southern’s crude oil shipments through Perryville was disclosed Monday by Amtrak, which owns 21 miles of rail line the company travels between Perryville and Newark, Del. The information was requested by McClatchy Newspapers, which filed a similar request with the Maryland Department of the Environment in June seeking information from Norfolk Southern and CSX Transportation Inc.

According to Amtrak, two trains consisting of 100 cars loaded with crude oil travel northbound between Perryville and Newark each day, and two trains with empty cars return southbound daily. The loaded trains weigh 13,500 tons, while the empty ones are approximately 4,000 tons, according to Amtrak.

In May, the U.S. Department of Transportation issued an emergency order requiring railroad carriers transporting a million gallons or more of crude oil from North Dakota’s Bakken region to notify state emergency response officials about shipments, including routes and the number of trains expected to travel per week through each county within the state.

The move came less than a month after a CSX freight train carrying Bakken crude oil derailed into the James River in Lynchburg, Va., the latest in a cluster of derailments that led the federal agency to deem such shipments an “imminent hazard” to the public.

In challenging the MDE’s release of the information, the rail companies argued federal law requires them to treat information on crude oil transports as confidential, arguing the information could be “detrimental to transportation security and public safety if publicly disclosed.” CSX only released the information to a state MDE official after the official signed a non-disclosure agreement.

But the Office of the Maryland Attorney General said the nondisclosure agreement was “null and void” because it contravened the state’s Public Information Act, and MDE said it would release the information unless the railroad companies took the issue to court.

The railroad companies filed complaints for injunctive relief at the end of July in Baltimore City Circuit Court. Lawyers for MDE, in response, said the agency would not disclose the information until a judge ruled on the requests for injunctions.

“[G]iven the public’s strong interest in disclosure of the Plaintiff’s information, MDE respectfully requests that a hearing on the merits be expedited,” lawyers for the agency wrote, reiterating they believe it was lawful for the information to be released under the state’s public records law.

No hearing date has been set, according to online court records. Norfolk Southern and CSX both dropped their requests for a temporary restraining order once MDE agreed to hold off on releasing the information.

The lawsuits in Maryland were the first time the railroad companies have gone to court to challenge the disclosure of crude oil transport information. Environmental agencies in some states have released similar information despite protests from rail companies. Other states, including Delaware and Pennsylvania, have denied public-records requests for the information.